Saturday, March 30, 2013

Cartographies of Life and Death: John Snow

John Snow, ‘Intimate Mixture of the Water Supply of the Lambeth with that of the Southwark and Vauxhall Company, 1854’ from On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, 1855.  LSHTM Library & Archives
“The second edition of Snow's inquiry was greatly expanded to include two maps – incidentally, the only two of his career.  Snow intended this map of the water supply in South London to be the centrepiece of his study – often termed The Grand Experiment.  It involved a mammoth on-foot investigation of 32 sub-districts of South London, supplied by two different water companies drawing water from different parts of the Thames – one polluted with contaminated water.  Snow showed that those residents supplied by the polluted source were several times more likely to contract cholera.  This demonstrated Snow's intuitive understanding of epidemiological principles: the groups exposed and not exposed to the contaminated water were very similar in every other respect, and large numbers were involved.”  From the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s Exhibit on Dr. John Snow, on the 200th Anniversary of his birth in 1813. 

I am not sure how I missed THIS important milestone, but March 15th, 2013 was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Dr. John Snow (1813-1858), the 19th century London anaesthesiologist who is considered to be the father of epidemiology and has become an iconic figure in public health.  He famously mapped the victims of a cholera epidemic in relationship to the locations of public water sources, and in the process, made the connections between the disease and contaminated water.  Until then, most medical professionals and the general public thought that cholera was caused by breathing unhealthy “miasma,” so rather than dealing with the root problems of a water-borne disease, they were under the mistaken impression that it was spread by air, and focused their attention to dealing with that problem instead of worrying about the water they were drinking. 

Snow prepared this version of the Broad Street map for a report to go before the Board of Health.  The map shows his original and innovative contribution to the field of disease mapping. The subtle inclusion of a dotted black 'Voronoi' line indicating the equidistant walking points between pumps helped to demonstrate Snow's theory that the Broad Street pump was the origin of the epidemic.
William Farr, “Diagram Representing the Mortality from Cholera in Different Elevations, 1848–1849” from Report on the Mortality of Cholera in England, 1840–50.  Wellcome Library, LondonFarr's Report offers some exceptional visual explanations of cholera mortality data. Contrary to Snow, Farr's analysis was leading him to the conclusion that elevation above sea level was the key factor in the communication of cholera.  Whilst his diagram clearly shows the relationship between lower ground elevation and higher mortality, this association was due to differences in water sources in these locations.  It is a reminder of how visualizations containing false associations have the power to mislead us. 
Right now at the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, an exhibit has been mounted detailing the detective story behind Dr. Snow’s map, and the influence his map has had in the world.  The hypothesis Dr. Snow was attempting to test involved much more than the mapping exercise, obviously, as important as that map was.  The map was based on a meticulous recording of all the cholera deaths in the Soho neighborhood, and some impressive footwork investigating from where various residences and institutions got their water.  So his analysis wasn’t just based on simple distance proximity, as it was discovered that many of the larger commercial establishments and so forth had their own private water supply, even though they were in close proximity to what turned out to be the culprit public water pump. 
From Mark Monmonier's seminal (1991) book "How to Lie with Maps"

Of course, one of the abiding drawbacks to Dr. Snow’s map was the fact that it is essentially a dot density map, and as has been noted by many cartographers, a dot density map often portrays nothing more than the underlying population density – you can not generally infer any information about the actual rate or proportion of the variable being mapped.  So what looks to be a “hot spot” of the disease or other variable on the map may be nothing more than an indication that there is the underlying concentration of people there, and nothing useful can be gleaned about the variable of interest.  In the case of Soho, however, this was less important than it would ordinarily be, since Soho as a whole was very densely populated, and likely the entire area has a similar enough population density per square mile or per acre. 

The exhibit points out that it was a commonly held belief during the social and political unrest prevalent with the outbreak of the cholera epidemic that the disease was a scare tactic dreamt up by the government to keep people in line, or that the disease was invented (or actively disseminated to the poor) by those in power for nefarious purposes, or even that the disease didn’t really exist at all.  There were even popular songs and poems along these conspiracy-theory lines and broadsheets published, including ones such as Cholera Humbug!  The Arrival and Departure of the Cholera Morbus. These broadsheets denigrated public health officials’ efforts to stem and contain the disease, and encouraged popular resistance against the political and medical authorities.  Unfortunately, these same kinds of attitudes still prevail in many parts of the world today, most noticeably pertaining to AIDS and sexually-transmitted diseases. 

And for some interesting things about the data itself, see the UK Guardian’s DataBlog post at
You can download the actual data collected by John Snow and his associates and play around with it, creating new visualizations and aggregations, and see for yourselves how incredible a feat Dr. Snow’s analysis really was, given he accomplished all this by hand and on foot.  No computers, GPS, telephone surveys, or Twitter tweets tracking. 
There are a few highly readable books on the cholera mapping story, most notably “Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and how it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World,” by Steven Johnson (2007).  Another, more critical, account of this seminal mapping project forms the basis of Tom Koch’s “Cartographies of Disease: Maps, Mapping, and Medicine,” (2005), ESRI Press. 

Detail of Dr. Perry’s 1844 map of the fever epidemic in Glasgow.  This shows three of the districts most seriously affected by the epidemic, bordered by Stockwell Street, Bridegate Street, Trongate, and Saltmarket, right near where I used to live!  The dots represent the locations of the fever victims.  

John Snow’s map has been called The Map that Changed the World.  Most people (if they know about Dr. Snow at all) believe that his cholera map is the first example of disease data mapping for analytical purposes.  This is not the case, even though his map may be the most well-known and celebrated.  Not to take anything away from Dr. Snow, but a decade or so earlier, in 1844, a Glaswegian surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary named Dr. Robert Perry, mapped a fever epidemic in Glasgow (detail shown above), and used it to make connections amongst poverty, bad housing, poor sanitation and environmental conditions, and disease.
The exhibit ends with some more recent examples of disease data mapping, showing the important legacy of Dr. Snow’s work, and how maps continue to help us combat disease and understand the relationship between health and environmental and social conditions. 

Dr Vale Massey's Map showing trypanosomiasis areas and distribution of Glossina palpalis and moristans brought up to 14 February 1907 in the Belgian Congo, Africa.  1907, hand-drawn. LSHTM Library & Archives.
Early public health was arguably more concerned with the protection of British interests overseas rather than serving the well-being of local populations, as evidenced in this map of Sleeping Sickness in the Belgian Congo.  The map was used in Commonwealth Office meetings to highlight how the disease was spreading along the banks of rivers towards areas of British gold mining interest and the need for strategies to stop this.

Iraq malaria survey maps: Baghdad area. LSHTM Library & Archives.
The striking graphic nature of this map highlights the urban environment's hidden danger zones of disease.  The dark red areas denote extreme risk, pink high and green slight risk areas.

In 2010 after an earthquake had devastated the island of Haiti, the cholera bacillus appeared, perhaps associated with UN soldiers.  It contaminated water sources, resulting in an outbreak that killed over 7,000 people.  Cholera is still prevalent to this day returning after each rainy season.
Ludovic Dupuis, Ivan Gayton and Ruby Siddiqui from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and Chris Grundy from LSHTM mapped and spatially analysed the outbreak in the hope of tracking how the outbreak was spreading.  

You can take a virtual tour through the John Snow exhibit at the LSHTM at

A review “The lie of the land: Mark Monmonier on maps, technology and social change,”
of Mark Monmonier’s books and ideas on mapping, including some words on the Snow map:

Thanks, Rafael Pereira of Urban Demographics, for pointing out the link to Dr. Snow’s birthday. 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Globemaker’s Toolbox

Waldseemüller World Map (detail) – Library of Congress - A plate of the 1507 world map made by the clerics Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann.

              One of the best cartographic mysteries of all time involves the 1507 Waldseemüller map of the world.  One of the first world maps to show the New World, the only remaining print of it languished for centuries, hidden in the library of a remote castle in Germany, rediscovered only in 1901.   The importance of the map, among other things, is that it is believed to be the first world map to name the American continents “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, whom the map makers believed was the actual discoverer of the land.  
There is an excellent book about the seminal Waldseemüller map, called The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name by Toby Lester (2009).  Some of you may recall that I mentioned this book in my blog post listing good Geography Beach Books, and it is a worthy read.  In fact, everything on that list is a worthy read, and I intend to update that list for your summer reading pleasure with all the many new and interesting geography-related books that have arrived in the interim. 
            There is now a new book out on the story of the Waldseemüller map and the young protégé, Johannes Schöner, who made an accurate globe based on it.  The book is called A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox: Johannes Schöner and the Revolution of Modern Science 1475-1550, by John Hessler.  It is unknown how the map makers produced the outline of South America so accurately at such an early date, prior to the voyages of discovery that would have provided that information.  That is also one of the map’s mysteries.  One of my favorite quotes from the book is what Waldseemüller himself wrote about the map, in order to prepare map readers for the strange sights they would see on his map: “if you are not familiar with the new discoveries, do not be afraid of what it is you see on this map, for it is how you will come to see your world in the future.”  Isn’t that the dream for any cartographer, to be able to produce a map that will open our eyes to new possibilities, a new world, a new future?  
            I am pasting below the excellent NYT article by one of my favorite science writers, John Noble Wilford, about the map, the book, Waldseemüller, Schöner, and the incredible world they found themselves in at the dawn of the 16th century.

Why America Is Called America by John Noble Wilford

A DECADE AGO, the Library of Congress paid $10 million to acquire the only known original copy of a 1507 world map that has been called “the birth certificate of America.” The large map, a masterpiece of woodblock printing, has been a star attraction at the library ever since and the object of revived scholarly fascination about the earliest cartography of the New World.  The research has also rescued from obscurity a little-known Renaissance man, the 16th-century globe maker Johannes Schöner, who was responsible for saving the map for posterity.
We call ourselves Americans today because of the map’s makers, Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann, young clerics in the cathedral village of St.-Dié, France.  By incorporating early New World discoveries, their map reached beyond the canonical descriptions of Old World geography handed down from Ptolemy in the second century.  On a lower stretch of the southern continent, the mapmakers inscribed the name “America” in the mistaken belief that Amerigo Vespucci, not Columbus, deserved credit for first sighting a part of that continent, South America.
Or possibly they favored Vespucci because he held more firmly to the growing consensus that this was indeed a New World, not the Indies (as Columbus so wanted to believe), and because he wrote more colorfully than Columbus about the people he encountered.
The map is also the source of an abiding mystery.  How did Waldseemüller and Ringmann already know so well the configuration of South America, before any recorded Spanish or Portuguese voyages around the horn to the west coast? How did they know of the Pacific before Balboa made his sighting in 1513?  Hard to believe it was just a guess or futuristic vision of what world geography would come to be.
Were the cartographers themselves dropping a hint when they wrote on the map that “if you are not familiar with the new discoveries, do not be afraid of what it is you see on this map, for it is how you will come to see your world in the future”?
Five years ago, John W. Hessler, a historian of cartography at the library, published “The Naming of America,” an account of the map’s importance in post-Ptolemy geography, its disappearance for centuries and its rediscovery in a castle near the Black Forest in southwestern Germany.  Now, Dr. Hessler has dug deeper into the dynamic of the years between Columbus, in 1492, and Copernicus, in 1543.  Science and exploration were stretching minds to distant horizons, once unknown.  Copernican astronomy was about to dislodge Earth from the center of the universe, a start to the Scientific Revolution.
His new book, “A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox,” is not able to solve the mapmakers’ enduring mystery.  But it is a richly illustrated delight to the eye.  I advise a slow tour of the maps, drawings, marginal notes and other material remains of Schöner’s wide-ranging mind.  Read the informative captions, then begin the text.
General readers will find the accounts of Schöner’s place in history and the preservation of the map lucid and fascinating.  Parts of more technical chapters, like the instructions on making a terrestrial globe, appear to be written more for the author’s academic peers than for many laypeople.  And of necessity, this is hardly a flesh-and-blood biography, as the archives are largely silent about Schöner’s personal life.
We do see a print of a bearded, heavyset man and read a brief diary entry about him as a young Catholic cleric with a relaxed view of celibacy: he entered into a relationship with a woman that produced three children.  One can thus understand his conversion to Protestantism in Martin Luther’s Reformation. That led him to the professorship in mathematics at Nuremberg, which he held to his death in 1547.
Dr. Hessler leaned heavily on Schöner’s personal archive of correspondence and manuscripts, books and maps, including corrections and comments in the margins. He was into everything in science: completing two world globes in his prime, drawing celestial maps and globes and preparing horoscopes, one even for a Hapsburg emperor.  Not another Leonardo da Vinci, but who was?
“          Rather than a producer of theories,” Dr. Hessler observes, Schöner “was instead a disseminator, a compiler and a transmitter of the new science and mathematics.”  Yes, something of a pack rat, but one with a sharp eye for what was likely to be of importance in the future. This attribute cast Schöner as savior of the 1507 world map. His practice was to gather and bind portfolios of his compiled materials. One of these, now called Schöner Sammelband (meaning “gathering”), preserved the “America” map. There it passed from hand to hand, all the other original prints disappeared, and Schöner’s was lost for more than 300 years. Most of the bound portfolios wound up in a Vienna library, but one languished in a German castle, unrecognized, until a Jesuit priest found it in 1901 — thence to the United States in 2003.
Nothing in the book points up more clearly Schöner’s pivotal place in a world in transition from the medieval to the modern than his residual interest in astrology and his awakening curiosity when he apparently heard reports of a new theory being formulated by a Polish Catholic cleric. A brilliant young student of Schöner’s, Georg Joachim Rheticus, went to see Copernicus in 1539 and learned more about the Earth orbiting the Sun. Rheticus then composed a short treatise, written in the form of a letter to his teacher, “most illustrious and learned” Johannes Schöner.
The publication, widely circulated in Europe, was the first definitive account of the new Copernican system of the heavens.

For an excerpt of a few pages from the book The Globemaker’s Toolbox, see the NYT at:

The wall map consists of twelve sections printed from woodcuts measuring 18 x 24.5 inches. Each section is one of four horizontally and three vertically, when assembled.  The map uses a modified Ptolemaic Map projection with curved meridians to depict the entire surface of the Earth.  In the upper-mid part of the main map there is inset another, miniature world map representing to some extent an alternative view of the world.  The full title of the map is Universalis cosmographia secundum Ptholomaei traditionem et Americi Vespucii aliorumque lustrationes ("The Universal Cosmography according to the Tradition of Ptolemy and the Discoveries of Amerigo Vespucci and others" - amongst the "others" being Columbus - who gets short shrift in the naming of the continents!). The map is held by the US Library of Congress, and a facsimile is on display there.  

Detail of the map, showing part of the land mass the map makers decided to call “America.”

For the post on Geography Beach Books, see:

The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth, and the Epic Story of the Map that Gave America its Name, by Toby Lester, Free Press, 2009. 

Monday, March 25, 2013

They will be remembered

Cartoon, 1911, artist unknown, from Cornell University's archives (School of Industrial and Labor Relations) 

Two years ago today, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Factory Fire, the worst industrial disaster in New York City's history, and one which galvanized ordinary New Yorkers, labor leaders, and policy makers at city, state, and federal levels to make significant changes in labor regulations, ensuring better worker safety and worker rights.  The fire was seen as particularly tragic because most of the dead were young immigrant women, many of them teenagers, and the deaths resulting from the fire could easily have been prevented.   
I often wonder, every year when watching the calling of the names of the dead from the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, waiting to hear the names of my two friends that died in the towers that day, how long this reading of the names is likely to continue, how long will it be relevant to those still alive, who will still be interested, 20 years from now, 50 years, 100 years.  I think we have an answer to these questions with the Triangle Fire commemorations. 

Events like 9/11 and the Triangle persist in everyday consciousness because of the sea change (for better or worse) in peoples' lives that they presaged. They will likely be remembered long after the survivors are gone. 

This year, as in the past, the New York City Fire Department rang the bell, once for each of the victims, at the site of the fire. 
 They also symbolically raised the fire ladders to the 6th floor of the building, which is the highest ladders could go in those days, and thus were several floors short of the fire on the 9th floor.  Many of the dead garment workers jumped from the windows to their deaths, since the factory owners had locked them in, the fire escapes were not built properly and collapsed, and the stairways were blocked. This is a short blurb about the FDNY tolling of the bells:
And this year, as in the past, ordinary people are involved in the "chalking" project, chalking the names of the victims in front of the tenements where they were living at the time of their deaths, many of them on the Lower East Side.  This ephemeral public art project is open access, anyone can join and participate in the chalking.
There is what promises to be an interesting talk by Kevin Baker at the Tenement Museum on Wednesday, March 27th, 2013,  about the Triangle Fire.  Kevin Baker, as some of you know who are avid historical fiction readers or NYC history buffs, authored a number of fabulous and award-winning books about Ole New York, such as Dreamland (turn-of-the-century Coney Island), Paradise Alley (the NYC Draft Riots/race riots during Civil War period), and Striver's Row (a young Malcolm X in WWII-era Harlem). 
Also, if you haven't seen them already, check out my blog posts about the Fire and the Chalking Project. 
Calling artists, designers, and architects: There is also a competition, sponsored by Remember the Triangle, for a design for a permanent memorial at the site of the fire.  You must register by March 29, 2013 on their website. Submission of design entries is in April.
Interactive map of important places related to the Triangle Fire.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Micromegas and the World of Tomorrow

 Micromegas, c. 1939, Frank Paul, designer and delineator; airbrushed tempera and watercolor on board, an unrealized building proposed for the 1939 New York City World’s Fair.  Many of the realized buildings from the Fair clearly took cues from futuristic visions promulgated by science fiction pulp magazines of the year.  In this fantastical scene, a warrior clad in Roman gladiator garb sits astride a domed pavilion with a star-shaped base reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty's architectural foundation.  Frank Paul, one of the principal science fiction illustrators of the day, perhaps took his revenge on an unresponsive Board of Design, who had rejected his Micromegas building design proposal, with his 1939 cover of Science Fiction No. 2 showing the Trylon and Perisphere being attacked by invading spaceships.  Photo by The Map Monkey

I went to the Museum of the City of New York this week to hear a talk by Marguerite Holloway, author of the new biography on John Randel Jr, (the man who mapped Manhattan), the book titled “The Measure of Manhattan,” as detailed in my recent blog post.  While there, I also visited the Museum’s exhibit on the World’s Fairs of the 1930’s, which I recommend to all of you who are in the NYC vicinity - go soon, since the exhibit will close at the end of March 2013.  
The story of the Depression-era Fairs, all of which featured some sort of a “World of Tomorrow” focus, is a fascinating one to me.  Although I have long been aware of the importance of the 1939-1940 New York City World’s Fair in this regard, I was not as knowledgeable about the OTHER 1930’s World’s Fairs in the U.S., which were all, to some extent, looking forward to the future and promoting the brave new world of technology, new materials, new design philosophies, and a new and improved way of life for the masses.  This was, I’m sure, welcome news for the masses themselves, who flocked to the World’s Fairs in record numbers, looking for a hopeful vision of the coming decades, and put the past troubles (and impending troubles) behind them, or at least out-of-mind for the time they spent at the Fair.  The Fairs “offered visions of unalloyed progress, lives of increased ease, an exhilarating future,” (Rothstein, 2012 “World’s Fairs of the 1930s Showed Boundless Vision of Prosperity”)
Oblique-Perspective Map Pastel Painting of 1939-1940 New York City World’s Fair
These World’s Fairs took place in Chicago (“A Century of Progress” in 1933-4), San Diego (1935-6), Dallas (1936), Cleveland (1936-7), San Francisco (1939-40) and finally in New York, “Building the World of Tomorrow” (1939-40).  For me, (and, of course, not having seen any of them first-hand!) I was in love with the New York World’s Fair, which was the culmination of the decade of World’s Fairs, and was probably the most ambitious and also the most bittersweet, being held on the brink of the U.S.’s entrance into WWII.  In fact, several of the international pavilions didn’t re-open for the Fair’s second season in 1940, since they were no longer countries in the political sense, having been taken over by Hitler in the meanwhile (Poland, Czechoslovakia, etc.) or due to crumbling resources and other realities, such as the Soviet’s Hitler-Stalin Pact (the Soviet Republics, Lithuania, etc.).  Germany, of course, was famously absent from the very beginning of the Fair. 
Despite the overtones of escalating world conflict, the New York World’s Fair, and indeed all of the fairs in the 1930’s, held out the promise of a better world, a World of Tomorrow.  An official pamphlet for the 1939 New York World’s Fair spread the Gospel of Optimism:  “The eyes of the Fair are on the future-- not in the sense of peering toward the unknown nor attempting to foretell the events of tomorrow and the shape of things to come, but in the sense of presenting a new and clearer view of today in preparation for tomorrow; a view of the forces and ideas that prevail as well as the machines.  To its visitors the Fair will say: Here are the materials, ideas, and forces at work in our world.  These are the tools with which the World of Tomorrow must be made.” 

I grew up with all my mother’s World’s Fair memorabilia, including salt and pepper shakers of the Trylon and Perisphere, a flimsy bridge table with those icons emblazoned on top, a complete set of decorative silver spoons with a different one of the various World’s Fair pavilions on each handle, and many other kitsch items, but most of all I remember her stories/rhapsodies about Billy Rose’s Aquacade, the Parachute Jump, General Motors “Futurama” exhibit - a vast scale model of an American city in the 1960’s - and the overall magic and beauty of the place.  My mother’s brand of can-do optimism seems emblematic of the times, and the World’s Fair endorsed and validated those feelings.  And although we may now look with a jaundiced eye at all the corporate-industrial-governmental alliances and their attempts to distract the public with gadgets and gee-gaws to be purchased while the world was about to explode, the World’s Fairs did serve a higher purpose, even if most of the Fair-goers were more interested in the amusement park and side show aspects of the fairs as opposed to the more educational exhibits. 
Probably one of the reasons I have a soft spot in my heart for World’s Fairs (and the New York World of Tomorrow one in particular) is that designers, architects, and urban planners were not only allowed free rein to present their visions for the not-so-distant future, but they were very much admired, looked up to, and even revered by the general populace.  When was the last time in recent memory that anyone (aside from those in these very self-referential fields) admired, or even better yet, listened to, professionals in the design fields?  All those industrial/product designers were almost demi-gods back then.  They were the people who would help us achieve our goal of better living through chemistry. 

Hugh Ferriss, delineator; Harrison and Fouilhoux, architects; charcoal and gouache on board.
More familiarly known as the Trylon and Perisphere, this instantly recognizable symbol of the Fair consisted of a 610-foot-high pyramidal tower (the Trylon) and a spherical structure 180 feet in the diameter (the Perisphere) set within an 18-foot-wide, 950-foot-long ramp (the Helicline). The Perisphere seemed to float above a reflecting pool, elevated 17 feet on eight tubular steel columns and ringed by fountains.  

The Trylon (derivation: a triangular pylon) and the Perisphere (a sphere which was all encompassing, surrounding) were known as the Fair’s “Theme Center,” and inside the giant globe of the Perisphere was Henry Dreyfuss’ “Democracity,” a diorama of a utopian urban environment where everything was accounted for through design.  Some were fanciful and never made it past the prototype stage, (the 7 foot tall robot that sang, smoked cigarettes, and counted with his fingers, and the “rocketgun” mode of transatlantic travel) but many of them came to fruition and enjoyed wide-spread usage (dishwashers, television, plexiglass, electric refrigerators, Tampax, color film – Kodachrome -, direct dial long distance telephone service, etc.).  All of these incremental innovations and labor-saving devices we now take for granted helped to usher in the far-reaching social transformations of the mid-20th century.
American Telephone and Telegraph Building – Lighted Map showing Demonstration Toll Calls (long-distance calls) that ordinary Fair-goers could place for free. 

            What of Micromegas himself?  Aside from the fact that he was never built for the Fair, what or who is Micromegas?  Well, it turns out that he was a visitor (a very large visitor!) to Earth from another galaxy, as told by Voltaire in 1752, in one of the world’s first science fiction novels.  Having an outsider such as Micromegas commenting upon the current state of affairs in the world was a well-know literary device for criticizing intolerance, religious dogma, and the government without getting into trouble, since it was the “outsider,” not the author, who was doing the talking.  Upon first encountering our fair planet, Micromegas’ traveling companion said “Truly, that which makes me believe there is no inhabitant on this sphere, is that it seems to me that no sensible being would be willing to live here.”   “Well, then!” said Micromegas, “perhaps the beings that inhabit it do not possess good sense,” from Micromegas: A Philosophical History (1752).  In keeping with Voltaire’s famous secularism and satirical irreverence, when the travelers from the far-away galaxy hear the theory of Thomas Aquinas that the world was made uniquely for mankind, they fall into an enormous fit of laughter.

Interactive map with photos of individual buildings of the New York World’s Fair

Cool article and videos of the “Futurama” ride in the General Motors Pavilion, which promised Americans a new way of life, including a car in every household.  The first video opens up with a shot of a car traveling across the Whitestone Bridge to get to the Fair.  The Bridge was brand new at the time (opening in April 1939, just in time for the Fair!).  In E. L. Doctorow's wonderful novel World's Fair, “A family exits the [Futurama] ride, and the father says, ‘General Motors is telling us what they expect from us: we must build them the highways so they can sell us the cars.’”

“The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair”
This drama illustrates the contribution of free enterprise, technology, and Westinghouse products to the American way of life.  The Middleton Family at the New York World's Fair pits an anti-capitalist bohemian artist boyfriend against an all-American electrical engineer who believes in improving society by working through corporations.  The Middletons experience Westinghouse's technological marvels at the Fair and win back their daughter from her leftist boyfriend. 

“The Original Futurama: The Legacy of the 1939 World's Fair” 
Seventy years after the closing of the 1939 New York World's Fair, The Daily Show writer Elliott Kalan looks back at its past vision of the World of Tomorrow. 

The Museum of the City of New York exhibit: “Designing Tomorrow: America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s”

Designing Tomorrow: American’s World’s Fairs of the 1930’s” Yale University Press, 2010

New York Public Library’s collection of photos and videos of NYC World’s Fair:

“To New Horizons”  General Motors Futurama exhibit 1940.  Definitive document of pre-World War II futuristic utopian thinking, as envisioned by General Motors. Documents the "Futurama" exhibit in GM's "Highways and Horizons" pavilion at the World's Fair, which looks ahead to the “wonder world of 1960.”  The Futurama part starts at 7:50.

This post is dedicated to my mom, who loved ALL the World’s Fairs, and we went to several of them whilst I was growing up - most notably, of course, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, held in the same former garbage dump in Queens as was the 1939 World of Tomorrow Fair.   I was exactly the right age for the 1964 World’s Fair, being old enough to go over there on my own (and often!), but young enough to still be thrilled by it.  I am also reminded of my great-grandma, Maggie Barnacle, who used to sing me to sleep with renditions of “Meet me in Saint Louie, Louie, Meet me at the Fair,” about the 1904 World’s Fair (“The Louisiana Purchase Exposition” celebrating the centenary of the 1804 Louisiana Purchase) in St. Louis, MO.  Both the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 (400th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage to the “New World”) and the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904 were big deals in her younger years, and they exerted a large influence on the day’s popular culture, including popular songs.  There are about 88 stanzas, but the chorus goes like this:

Meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair
Don't tell me the lights are shining
Anyplace but there
We will dance the "Hoochie-Koochie"
I will be your "Tootsie-Wootsie"
If you will meet me in St. Louis, Louis,
Meet me at the Fair.

(You may have seen the Judy Garland 1944 film Meet me in Saint Louis where she sings the same song, and probably better than my Nana did!)

Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Man Who Mapped Manhattan

 The Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, showing how the grid plan was superimposed over the natural topography of the island.  It also shows the limits of development at the time it was produced.

We always hear about these “Commissioners” who were responsible for commissioning a street plat design for New York City (Manhattan).  But what about the man who actually carried out all the work involved in effectuating the grid plan?  What about John Randel, Jr.?
Hot off the presses: just published, a biography of John Randel, Jr., his life and times.  Little known anymore, John Randel is the man responsible for the regularized grid pattern of streets and property lots that marches over hill and dale (or what’s left of the natural topography after the street design was put in place) in Manhattan. 
The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor,, and Inventor by Marguerite Holloway, 2013,

Here is a story from Columbia University’s New York Stories webpage, about John Randel and his biographer, along with a nice little video interviewing the author and showcasing some wonderful historic maps of Manhattan.  See the video at

New York Squared: Marguerite Holloway on the Man Who Mapped Manhattan
“Just a few years after Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to the great Northwest, another intrepid American set out on a journey through challenging terrain at the government’s behest. In 1808, John Randel Jr., a young surveyor, was charged with mapping Manhattan Island and laying out the street grid that, for 200 years, has shaped and spurred the growth of New York City.
In 2004, Marguerite Holloway, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, found herself writing about the Mannahatta Project—an effort by environmental scientists to “recreate” Manhattan in its natural state. The scientists relied in part on Randel’s data. Fascinated by tales of the Albany-born surveyor (1787-1865), she says, “I tried to find out as much as I could about him—at the time, there was very little. It became an obsession.”
Holloway’s obsession has turned into a biography of Randel that has just been published by W.W. Norton. Researching the book, Holloway, an experienced science journalist, found herself scouring archives throughout the northeastern United States. “I’m used to asking people lots of questions,” she says. “But this time, many of my sources were long dead.”
Her book, she says, tries to paint a complete picture of Randel, whom she describes as a visionary. He “wrestled the wildness of the island as he imposed his vision upon it: Gone, in his mind’s eye, were the hills and ponds, the towering chestnut trees, the unruly outcroppings,” she wrote in a New York Times piece. “Randel was mesmerized by the image of a magnificent, neatly ordered metropolis.”
Randel was appointed to the task by New York City’s three street commissioners—one of whom was Gouverneur Morris, the 1768 graduate of King’s College who wrote parts of the U.S. Constitution. New York’s mayor for much of that time was DeWitt Clinton (CC 1786) who later as New York’s governor went on to champion a different feat of civil engineering, the Erie Canal.
Randel, whom Morris described as “more ambitious of accuracy than profit,” spent three years surveying the island for the famous Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. Then he spent the next 10 years physically imposing the grid from First Street to 155th Street using more than 1,500 3-foot-tall marble monuments sunk into the ground and, where there was no way to do that, bolts set in rock.
Randel and his men were pelted with vegetables, attacked by dogs and arrested for trespassing—the targets of landowners alarmed by the arrival of right angles in rural areas. Not only were the property lines going to have to be redrawn, but in many cases the imagined thoroughfares went right through barns and houses, Holloway explains.
"We can't say that he came up with the grid plan but he was the person who brought the grid to life...he scratched it into the landscape," she says. "He did it with such precision that surveyors today can follow Rand    l's maps--he got it right."
A longtime contributor to Scientific American, Holloway began teaching at the journalism school as an adjunct in 1997 and took a tenure-track position in 2006; she won a presidential teaching award in 2009. Holloway teaches science and environmental reporting in the M.S. program and in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health and Science Journalism, part of the M.A. program for experienced journalists.
Living on the Upper West Side, Holloway says, she has long appreciated the Manhattan street grid—“I liked it even before I’d heard of Randel.” She also likes the interruptions to the grid, places like the Columbia campus and Morningside Park, which “give you a different experience within the city”—no matter if the park is one of the “unruly outcroppings” Randel worked so hard to tame.”  — Story by Fred A. Bernstein — Video by Columbia News Video Team

Thanks, Susan McMahon, for sending the link to the story. 

Please also refer back to my post of March 21, 2011, commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan at

And now, for the first time, the Randel Farm Maps can be explored digitally, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York (where there was an exhibit about New York’s grid pattern planning last year to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan) at
An excellent book on the 1811 grid was written in conjunction with this exhibit, The Greatest Grid: Manhattan’s Master Plan, 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon. Blurb from Museum of the City of New York website: “Laying out Manhattan's street grid and providing a rationale for the growth of New York was the city's first great civic enterprise, not to mention a brazenly ambitious project and major milestone in the history of city planning.  The grid created the physical conditions for business and society to flourish and embodied the drive and discipline for which the city would come to be known.”


The famous 1962 Hermann Bollmann axonometric (parallel perspective) map clearly displays Manhattan’s famous gridded street pattern, (see my post on Bird’s Eye Views of NYC for more on the Bollmann map and below is a photograph emphasizing the unrelenting grid of mid-town Manhattan. 

Not everyone is a fan of the grid, some calling it robotic, uninteresting, lacking in imagination, and mind-numbingly uniform, the enemy of spontaneity.  Others say the plan maximizes land use, was “visionary,” and tout its “modernity” and its transformative characteristics – the grid becomes the backdrop for whatever we want to project onto it.  
Rem Koolhaus, in his seminal 1978 book, “Delirious New York: A Retrospective Manifesto for Manhattan,” focuses on the grid as the enabler of Manhattan’s “culture of congestion,” calling New York a “metropolis of rigid chaos.”  He describes the grid as an “artificial domain planned for nonexistent clients in anticipation,” a negative symbol of the short-sightedness of commercial interests with no regard for interaction between fragments or spontaneity.  On the other hand, the grid is celebrated on the cover of his book as one of the defining elements of NY, with the iconic Empire State and Chrysler Buildings lying down in a bedroom where the area rug is a piece of the grid, and the bedside table lamp is the Statue of Liberty’s torch.   
Tourists to the city tend to like the grid, because of the ease it creates in getting around the city, and the unlikelihood of getting too lost with the regular pattern and numbering system.  Of course, getting lost sometimes is half the fun of being a tourist, and romantics prefer cities like London or Paris which have little of the regularity to their street patterns, reflecting development over a long period of time, rather than a city platted basically in one fell swoop.  Naturally the real winners in Manhattan’s grid plan were the real estate developers who wanted a consistent and replicable way to develop and sell property.  The standard lot size of 25 x 100 (perfect for the attached townhouse format) made property development particularly lucrative.  The grid allowed for a predictable scheme for street access, ease of traffic flow, and infrastructure installation, and thus was a developer’s dream.  
Prior to the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan, New York’s street pattern developed in a series of growth spurts that created a hodge-podge design.  There was the mediaeval tip of lower Manhattan, (still largely extant) with its organic maze of streets, and similar to what you would find in most European cities of the 16th century.  Then there were several areas built independently by large-scale land owners, such as DeLancey and Rutgers, both holders of large farm estates who subdivided their lands for commercial sale, and laid out streets in a grid pattern of their own devising.  These independently-developed street grids tended to collide with other adjacent gridded areas.  In this 1847 map of Manhattan, we can see the various colliding grids built prior to the 1811 Plan.  
For better or worse, New York City would not be NYC without the grid, and the history of NYC’s physical development is a fascinating one.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Happy 540th Birthday, Nicolaus Copernicus!

Google Doodle of Copernicus' Heliocentric model of the Solar System

Happy Birthday, Copernicus!  February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543

So, any of you who opened up Google today doubtless saw their shout out to Copernicus, the mediaeval Polish astronomer and mathematician. Why they (Google) decided that 540 was a particularly significant anniversary is anybody's guess, but they featured on their home page an “animated Google Doodle,” of Copernicus’ heliocentric (or heliostatic) model of the solar system, showing the Sun at the center with the planets, including the Earth, highlighted, revolving around it.   Best known for his treatise "On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres," Copernicus asserted that the earth revolved around the sun - contrary to the mediaeval belief that the earth was the centre of the universe (geocentric).  He is considered the patron saint of those who question the rules (and thus one of my heroes!) and of course the Church branded him as a heretic for challenging the belief that the Earth is at the center of the universe.  Luckily for him, most of the controversy actually started after Copernicus’ death in 1543.  In fact, at the advent of Copernicus’ theories, the Pope and various cardinals seemed very well-disposed to entertain these theories as interesting and useful. 
Cardinal von Schonberg, Archbishop of Capus, wrote to Copernicus: “Some years ago word reached me concerning your proficiency, of which everybody constantly spoke.  At that time I began to have a very high regard for you... For I had learned that you had not merely mastered the discoveries of the ancient astronomers uncommonly well but had also formulated a new cosmology.  In it you maintain that the earth moves; that the sun occupies the lowest, and thus the central, place in the universe... Therefore with the utmost earnestness I entreat you, most learned sir, unless I inconvenience you, to communicate this discovery of yours to scholars, and at the earliest possible moment to send me your writings on the sphere of the universe together with the tables and whatever else you have that is relevant to this subject.”
It fell to later astronomers, like Galileo, to actually prove Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism, since Copernicus made his discoveries with the unaided eye.  When Galileo later used a telescope to confirm the theory, that’s when the Church started going ballistic.  After Galileo, Kepler, and others brought the heliocentric model back into the limelight, the theologians started taking issue with Copernicus, stating that heliocentrism was against Holy Scripture, and was “philosophically untenable and theologically heretical.”  All who held Copernican beliefs were considered heretics.  But by this time, Copernicus himself had been dead nearly a century. 
Copernicus was an interesting fellow.  Born in what had been Prussia, but shortly before his birth had become part of Poland, (although a German-speaking area), he probably identified more with his German-hood (or rather his Prussian-ness) than his Polish-ness.  It is even dubious that he spoke Polish very well.  However, the family supported the Polish cause in the 13 Years War with Prussia.  He attended Cracow University (in those days instruction was in Latin, the universal language of learning and the Church) and he was considered a polymath, having interests and expertise in law, economics, medicine, art, and the classics, in addition to what he is best remembered for today, astronomy and math. 
He discovered the variability of the Earth’s eccentricity and of the movement of the solar apogee in relation to the fixed stars, and based on these and other astronomical observations, he created a reformed version of the Julian calendar for the Pope.  Although several Popes during Copernicus’ lifetime were pleased with his heliocentric model of the universe, he held off on publishing the book De revolutionibus orbium coelestium for fear of backlash and censure from the Church.  Legend has it that he had the book published only in his old age, and the first copy of it that he ever saw was placed in his hands on his deathbed right before he died.
Interestingly, Copernicus and Kepler both are honored in the Episcopal Church by a feast day on May 23rd.  Who knew?  This is especially ironic, as it seems to have been the Protestants who hounded him (or at least, those who ascribed to his theories) the most in the early 1600’s.  However, the Catholics, even worse, kept Galileo under house arrest until his death.  Well, there are those even today in these enlightened (benighted?) times who are afraid of acknowledging scientific truths for fear of what it will do to upset their worldview.  As Craig Ferguson, the late-night talk show host and comic, often says “ReMIND you of anyone?” 

Short video on Copernicus: